THE SHIPPING NEWS
By E. Annie Proulx
Scribners. 337 pp. $20
HERE IS QUOYLE, with a giant's chin and "a casement of flesh." He stumbles from unloving family to unwelcoming world, falls into newspapering, walks around his trailer asking aloud, "Who Knows?" Marries badly -- Petal Bear, "thin, moist, hot," who warms him, "as a hot mouth warms a cold spoon," but thinks of him as "a walrus panting on the pillow." Never mind. He clings: two daughters, "six kinked years of suffering," until Petal and a lover take a wrong turn, end up dead. All in 28 pages.
Unlikely material for a romantic comedy, but E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is, doubt not, a wildly comic, heart-thumping romance. Here is a writer who, in a room with Robertson Davies, John Barth, Dickens and Joyce, would say, "That's nothing, hear this," and hold the room. Here is a novel that reinvents the tale and gives us a hero for our times. Do not think all that matters take place in the cities; Proulx proves, with her special brand of sympathy, that redemption lies in the outpost, and heroes are those who will open to joy.
As Quoyle reels in grief, his aunt, a yacht upholsterer, appears with a scheme. She and her toothless dog, Quoyle and the girls, will steer "away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go." After all, the old house still stands, more or less, accessible only by roads impassable for months, or across the bay. It's "half ruined . . . pumiced by stony lives of dead generations." And what's a man to do in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland?
Survive. Invent. Start work on the "Gammy Bird," a newspaper that specializes in sex abuse stories and runs a wreck front page, every week, no exception. Make mistakes (like buying a boat that nearly drowns him) and friends -- especially Dennis and Beety, who become the family he's never had. Develop a taste for seal-flipper pie and squidburgers. Above all, look after the children. For pure fathering, Quoyle is already heroic. Sunshine and Bunny are wonderful characters, especially Bunny, 6, who scowls like Beethoven, dreams of a snarling white dog, and shows off, eating lobster, saying, "I love red spider meat." Quoyle, who cherishes his offspring, gives them all the things he comes to realize Quoyles never gave or got before: real attention, gentle handling, respect, which is how we come to know, at first, how much he has to give.
Much of the novel winds out of the "Gammy Bird" offices, where, though his first efforts are "like reading cement," he learns to put a spin on it. He is part of something. He sets out to learn all he can, not just about the shipping news -- his beat consists of listing boats-in, boats-out -- but Killick-Claw, the Quoyles, new friends, Newfoundland. And through a cast of improbably named characters (Nutbeam, Diddy Shovel, Tert Card, among many) Proulx regales us with a pandect of Newfoundland lore. Some of it is cruel and nasty, most of it is harrowing but all of it is lustily entertaining. She goes on a little too long about Gaze Island (from whence the Quoyles skidded, the ancestral home across the ice); she strays from her established points of view to throw in a seal hunt; there are moments of exaggerated portentousness, a forced invention and a surfeit of obscure vocabulary (jaggled hair frowsting down, a craquelured surface, etc.). But this is a novel bursting with story, a lot of dimes for your dollar.
PROULX, who won the PEN-Faulkner Award this year for her novel Postcards, uses language that is riotous yet clearly under her control. She compresses it oddly -- "Quoyle chopped at his secret path to the shore. Read his books. Played with his daughters . . . Pain he thought blunted erupted hot" -- as if there's so much story, no time for every sentence. She plays word games and lets Quoyle comically label his perceptions: "Dog Farts Fell Family of Four." She is capable of precision, the perfect description, the keenest insight. She is grand with weather and landscape.
It is her characters, however, who bind the spell, and there are many. Every one has a story. The aunt has spent a lifetime running from childhood. Dennis wants his father's lobster license. Girlfriend Wavey's drowned husband is a demon ghost. Somehow, the stories matter and merge; the pieces fit; Quoyle belongs, at last.
Proulx quotes an old sailors' book. To untangle a snarl, we are told, "do not pull on the end; permit it to unfold itself." A prescription for storytelling. For life. The Shipping News is proof.
Sandra Scofield's fourth novel, "More Than Allies," is forthcoming.